Thin air in the Inca capital
Cusco part one
The thin air, yes. Many guide books and travel blogs warn you about doing what we do, travel to Cusco by air. At a height more that 3 300 meters above sea level the city has an air pressure and oxygen level alien to our lowland bodies. Almost immediately we experience a slight dizziness and we start panting from the slightest effort. Like just moving our feet. We see our fellow passengers proceed slowly and sort of dignified between the arrival entry and the luggage conveyor belts. It seems wise, so we mimic their movements.
In the days ahead we plan to take things really easy and rest a lot, to adapt to the height. We figure we need to be fit when we go up to Machu Picchu three days later. But resting here is not so easy. The body chemistry is in imbalance which makes it really hard to sleep. I find myself regularly gasping for air, leaving me upset and awake.
Cusco is a mountainous city although the central parts of it lies in a narrow valley. Outside the centre the buildings crawl up the slopes of the surrounding mountains. We’re staying in a clean and nice hotel in San Blas, a “bohemian” district we’re told, that has narrow steep streets. And yes, it’s surely “bohemian”. Side by side with the indigenous street vendors there are lots of young western hippies with tired eyes selling homemade metal wire kitsch. The bystanders are young western tourists, most of them from USA or Latin America.
The streets of San Blas are extremely narrow, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of cars from entering them. Turning a corner most often has to be performed by a couple of back-and-forth moves before the driver can proceed. As a pedestrian you have to constantly flee up on a diminutive sidewalk to let them pass.
In the afternoon when we feel strong enough to go and find some place to eat we walk down to the great Plaza de Armas square. Lined by churches and cheap diners it has a golden statue of an Inca king in the middle. The king is Pachacutec and the statue has caused some heated debates here. Some have said it’s a stylistic crime to have an Inca statue on such an iconic Spanish square. But the statue is put there by order of the city mayor who for many years has promoted an “Inca-ization” of Cusco. We see the Inca rainbow flag everywhere, it looks like the flag used in the Pride movement.
Plaza de Armas is situated on the exact spot where previously there was an Inca square. So in accordance with all other efforts to obliterate everything connected to Inca culture and history the Spanish conquistadors turned it into a purely Spanish plaza. And it was here the rebel Tupac Amaro got his head chopped off in 1781. As a symbolic gesture.
But when we reach the square it’s overrun by a maelstrom of people, dancing in fancy indigenous-looking costumes to marching bands, or perched on platforms or ledges surrounding the square. It’s a carnival of some sort, some of the dancers wear hideous masks. A TV crew is broadcasting live. We are told that each group of dancers (with their own musicians) represent a company, an institution or a union, and everyone wants to join in this fiesta.
The parading goes on for hours, more and more people pour into the square, but after a while we remember that we were actually on our way to find a bit to eat. So again we go looking for a decent restaurant. Pushing our way through the crowds we finally find one that becomes a favourite in Cusco. The door is guarded by the worlds worst barker, a very old and very small man who without a word opens the door to let you in.
Next chapter is about a new day in Cusco when we join most of the city folks in the celebration of Inti Raymi, the most important Inca ceremony of all.